WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
At the end of October I finished a six week tour of a kids show, Friends Electric, with the company Visible Fictions. Twenty-five venues. Forty performances. Two Air BnBs. One friends’ spare room. One parents’ spare room. One golf resort. Two actors. One stage manager. One use of petrol instead of diesel. One hill walk. One valley walk. Three oil rigs. About ten school dinners. One billion yellow-red-green-orange leaves. One kid telling us, ‘This is my dream come true!’
I loved doing Friends Electric. I loved the rehearsal process – I have never laughed so much in a rehearsal room. The writer, Lewis Hetherington, has a sense of humour which tickles me so directly that I found myself delivering my own jokes in a Lewis Hetherington style within the first week of rehearsals. I loved how gentle the director, Matt, was, while still managing to make me work so hard that there were a few days towards the end of the four weeks of rehearsal that after every run I would melt onto the floor in an I’m-not-fit-enough puddle. I loved the show itself. It was suited very well to my strengths in terms of talking to the audience directly, and suited to Alan too, who played a robot to such effect that even though his entrance often brought cries of, “aw, it’s just a man”, before he’d even started his dialogue kids were telling each other that he was definitely a robot. I loved how well Marisa, Alan and me all got on in the many hours in the van, and then also in the living rooms, conservatories and kitchens in our digs. I loved our digs – Marisa is preternaturally skilled at choosing digs, and then making those digs even better by cooking amazing meal after amazing meal. I loved how we supported we were by Visible Fictions – we felt loved. I loved it.
The show was a bunch of firsts for me. It was the first proper tour I’ve done, different place each day (gladly not more than one venue each day). It was also the first kids’ show I have done. It felt so natural, though. So many years of performing (and writing) in the dramas for the summer clubs at my church as I was growing up, that level of direct-to-audience chat and having to deal with whatever happens came quite easily. Saying that, doing such a long tour (from my perspective, I think the guys doing White have been touring that for about five years and are approaching 1000 performances) showed me how much more relaxed and flexible and confident I could become with the piece through the experience of performing it so many times, in so many spaces and with so many audiences. The show was set up as a demonstration – part-Apple-launch and part-TED-talk – and so the audience sat on three sides of the hexagonal floor cloth and I spoke to them, demonstrating this most lifelike robot ever created. This meant we were all clearly in the same space. If something happened in the audience, it happened with us. I like this. This focus on the liveness is something I tend to have in my own work as well. What I knew intellectually, but had not experienced physically/emotionally/mentally though, is the huge amount of kid-involvement that comes with, well, kids. Some favourites:
- kid who liked to repeat everything that I said that was a bit louder or more emotional than the usual dialogue – he tended to repeat it until I said something else emotional like an enthusiastic echo: ME: You’re not Bernard. HIM: YOU’RENOTBERNARDYOU’RENOTBERNARDYOU’RENOTBERNARD [scene continues underneath the Active Echo] ME:… going to watch a quick video HIM: QUICKVIDEOQUICKVIDEOQUICKVIDEO
- kid who wanted to explain the plot to me very loudly during the emotional silence of the climactic scene because she was worried what I might do to the robot
- kid in the front row who, from the moment he saw the robot, pretended to be a robot fighting another robot – just by himself
- kid who wanted to let me know that my foot was bleeding after a bit of set fell on it by coming right up to me and pulling my blouse and repeating, ‘scuse me, scuse me, you’re bleeding’. When I didn’t respond (I was saying my lines), she nudged her pal to get her involved and they started in stereo, ‘scuse me, scuse me, you’re bleeding’.
- kids in the first show who were 90 in number, rather than 60, and whose teachers clearly thought we had it under control, who shouted and screamed so much that during a tense climax I had to wildly mouth my cue word in the hope that Marisa could see
- kid in that same, over-audienced show who, when I went off stage to have a phone call and the robot was doing things he wasn’t supposed to on stage, the kid came running out of the auditorium to tell me
- kid who, when she saw the robot on the video (complete with Alan’s contact lenses) announced to the group, ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph look at his eyes!’
- kid(s – this happened a lot) who, after I had been enthusiastically demonstrating this LIVE ROBOT to them for about 20 minutes, when I said that ‘we are going to watch a quick video’ would fist-pump with a hissed, ‘yusssssss’
- kid who explained at length to me how worried he was about my decision to let the robot run away (‘What if he malfunctioned and he shot LASERS?!’), but, when the robot came back and I decided to run away with him, the kid stopped the robot to hug him round the waist and say, ‘Thank you for coming back’
- kid who had been very involved throughout who, during the sad bit for the robot, went back to his mum for a cuddle and then came and sat on his seat again to watch the rest of the show
- kid who, when I was getting everyone excited about the robot and said ‘We’re going to cast our eyes across the horizon of technology, to the very edge of scientific discovery’ shouted to me from the back of the crowd of kids ‘WE DON’T DO THAT HERE’
- kid who bum-shuffled his way into the middle of the playing space as I was leaving and Alan was about to burst out of the set squashing him into a little boy pulp (I pulled him back by his cushion and set a girl who didn’t know him the task of keeping him still) (NB. this kid is the same kid as the kid in the first point – dream toddler-audience-member)
One of my abiding memories of this tour will be when some kid did something wonderful/funny/horrific I would carry on with the show but part of my brain was going ‘please remember this, Ishbel, please remember what she just did’. Often I didn’t, or I didn’t until the next day when we were doing the show again and it would come back to me, and I would wait for the bit where I was off stage and I would try to bed the memory in so that I could tell Alan and Marisa, or my mum and dad, because it is amazing. What a privilege to be that believed, to be that beloved (in the case of the robot). The saddest thing on tours, and there weren’t too many of these, was when a teacher felt that the kids were to sit silently and so shushed or even told off kids who got involved. That stiffling broke my heart. I tried to change my opening lines ever-so-slightly to imply that we wanted chat, that we could deal with involvement, that we needed it. There was no school or venue where they were never silent. Even in the infamous School Of Ninety Kids, there were moments of utter and complete silence when the tension in the room was electric. I can see why performers and writers get addicted to making work for kids – it is so direct, the response is so immediate and audible and visual – it’s like a drug.
I’m looking for my next hit.